What makes a great course great?
This is how I start my Awesome Courses Bootcamps. I ask students to spend 5 minutes listing the characteristics of high quality courses.
The exercise is illuminating. Go ahead and try it yourself. Set a timer for 5 minutes and brainstorm a list of characteristics. If you have time, refine your list so it's mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive.
With every group of new students, or with each new client, when we go around sharing answers, everyone's list looks different. There's a lot of overlap, but I've never seen two identical lists come out of this exercise, whether done individually or in a group.
I believe this is because while the majority of us have gone through a similar series of educational experiences as students, course creators don't share the same level of training or familiarity in teaching, learning theories, or cognitive science. We lack a common vocabulary and framework for evaluating educational materials.
We all share the same goal - making high quality courses - but we don't inherently agree on what "high quality" means.
And I've also found that very few course creators have actually gone through an exercise of trying to articulate their own quality defintion.
Quality frameworks help establish a common language around what target we're aiming for, what characteristics matter (and don't matter), and how to measure success. A good quality framework informs every step of the course development process - from how we design course curriculum, to quality assurance on course materials, to what kind of feedback we seek from students.
I've developed quality frameworks for several edTech startups. When I join a company, it's one of the first steps I take - understand the current definition of quality and where necessary, refine it so we have a shared understanding and begin measuring the necessary metrics. Each time I've been through the quality framework development exercise, I've learned something new. And I've learned even more from the experience building and releasing courseware to students in different contexts, seeing what works, what doesn't work as well, and seeing student feedback.
What I'm presenting here is the culmination of over 12 years of learning about online course quality. A framework outlining the pillars of course quality that I think apply to every course.
The CREATE Quality Framework
There are six pillars of the CREATE Quality Framework, spelling out the acronym CREATE:
Let's look at each of these individually.
Challenging first and foremost means ensuring the pace you teach at is appropriate for your target audience's level of experience and knowledge. You don't want the course to be either too fast or too slow for your target students. This doesn't mean you set the same pace throughout, though. For example, in a beginner-level course, you'll want to spend more time on the fundamentals, with plenty of examples, demonstrations, and quizzes where you check for understanding, and as the course progresses and students become more familiar with the material, you can pick up the pace and cover topics a bit more succinctly.
You also want to make sure the context and complexity of the material are appropriate for the target student. This not only means avoiding overloading students with material that's too difficult or complex, but also not teaching material they already know, or over-explaining material if you're teaching advanced students.
Challenging also means ensuring you provide appropriate scaffolding at every step of the course, to ultimately help students understand advanced topics.
And of course, challenging means assessments and exercises are appropriately difficult for the target student and their prerequisite knowledge - neither too easy nor too difficult. You'll want to push students to practice their skills in ways that expand their capabilities. Cognitive skills and abilities are similar to physical ones; just as exercise works muscles to build their strength over time, our practices and assessments should be designed to push students far without overwhelming them.
Calibrating to the right level of challenge can be tricky, because you're most likely going to teach in areas where you're an expert. Experts often struggle to recall what it was like to learn the material. This is one of the major reasons why research to understand your target student and testing your courseware with users are invaluable.
Students buy courses because they have a problem the course can solve. A high quality course is therefore one that solves the student's problem, or rather that equips students with the new skills and abilities needed to solve their problem. Therefore, course needs to be oriented towards delivering outcomes that are relevant to real world problems students are facing.
Relevance also means bringing real world situations into your course through examples, illustrations, and cases. This not only makes your course interesting, but helps students see how each topic relates to the bigger picture, to the overarching course objectives, and to prepare to apply skills to their real world problem.
In-depth research will help you understand who the target student is - the problem they're trying to solve, their underlying motivations, what they already know about the topic, how they like to learn, and more.
Effectiveness means ensuring that students come away from the course with new capabilities they didn't have before taking the course. Put simply, the course works as intended.
An effective course is one where the assessments and the practice problems appropriately measure each student's mastery of the target skills. When a student passes a test or assignment, students should be proving that they have new skills and abilities.
And ultimately, each of the modules and every learning material in the course - every video, exercise, or reading - should support learning by following best practices for structure, clarity, and skill building. Use techniques like gradual release of responsibility, scenario-based learning, and sharing expert schemas to facilitate understanding.
A course isn't high quality unless all students who enroll can learn from the material. This means ensuring your course environment accommodates students with disabilities. At a minimum transcribe all video and audio content, and utilize a course platform that's compliant with accessibility standards in order to support features like screen readers.
Accessibility also involves inclusion. Ensure your course provides a welcoming and supportive learning environment for students from every ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Carefully consider how your course content, particularly examples and the language you use, might play to a global audience. And as you're designing the learning experience, try to eliminate anything that may be distracting or disruptive to students achieving their learning goals.
A high quality course should cover the right amount of material. This includes the appropriate breadth of topics, as well as the appropriate amount of detail or depth to meet the target learning outcomes.
But more doesn't necessarily mean better. Aim for the ideal balance between too little and too much. This is difficult to achieve - the natural tendency is always to share more than needed and try to make the course a comprehensive, exhaustive resource. In my experience, if the topic isn't absolutely essential to meeting the learning outcomes (if it's not explicitly necessary for the student to know the material in order to be able to do what the course is teaching them to do) remove it. You can always link to a third-party resource where the student can learn about that material.
You might think that creating an engaging course means something like "fun and enjoyable." That's certainly a component.
But learning isn't always fun, because transformative growth requires struggle.
Focus on ensuring the course materials are professionally produced and free from distractions. Things like typos on your slides and readings, missed edits in your videos, lots of backround noise in your audio, or poorly designed slides can pull the students out of the learning experience. If your student is thinking about bad audio quality, or wondering who copy edited your readings, they're not thinking about the material you're teaching.
Online courses are competing for students' time and attention with other obligations and potential activities they could do, like watch Netflix. So the instructional techniques and media used in the course should grab the learner's attention and hold it. You don't have to make Netflix-quality video, but polish and professionalism do matter, so follow best practices and play to these media's strengths.
If you're making a self-paced course, your students will likely have some lengthy gaps between learning sessions. Make it easy for students to pick up where they left off, and to get back into the material. Most course hosting platforms will help students track their progress, but you can also add knowledge checks to help students recall material and more quickly re-engage.
Applying the Framework
You might think this is a lot. And you're right, it is. It's not easy to create a high quality course. It requires intentionality every step of the way, careful consideration of the student journey, and attention to detail. Your students deserve nothing less.
In The Awesome Courses Bootcamp, at every step of course development, I walk authors through a reflective assessment using these pillars, to ensure every pillar of quality is present. We even take time to workshop the course material with students before producing polished materials, to ensure the curriculum hits the quality mark.
And once the course is done and in front of students, you should also target feedback around these particular pillars of quality, not only so you ensure holistic quality, but can identify specific areas you can improve.